by Anna Campbell
I've noticed that when I'm talking classic romance and books that influenced a lot of writers, Mary Stewart's name is bound to come up. From all I could discover, Mary Stewart is still alive at the ripe old age of 96. Here's a link to a bio and some info about her books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Stewart_%28novelist%29
There's something charming about someone whose maiden name was Rainbow! And like many of her heroines, she was a nice English vicar's daughter. She's credited with inventing the modern romantic suspense novel, so I'm grateful to her not just for her books but for the many stories in this genre that I've enjoyed since.
I haven't read these books since late primary school/early high school so needless to say they're dim memories to me in terms of plot detail, if not in terms of how fondly I remember them. I still recall some of the wonderful landscape descriptions for which Mary Stewart is so famous. The midday heat and the cicadas and the scent of fragrant herbs in the South of France from MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? (1954), for example. I blame Mary Stewart for at least part of what spurred me to travel - do you think she'll refund some of my airfares?
No, I didn't think so either.
The people next to our farm were considerably better off than we were and had a library. To a bookish young 'un like me, that was the height of sophistication. And they were Mary Stewart fans - I still remember them lending me beautiful hardcover book club editions of books like AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND (1965), about the Lipizzaner stallions in Austria.
Ah, memory lane! That's right, you wanted a review, didn't you?
My friend Annie West is a great Mary Stewart fan and has read the books a lot more recently than I have. My copies are long gone, but Annie snaffled WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT and MY BROTHER MICHAEL for me for this review.
MY BROTHER MICHAEL (1959) was the first Mary Stewart I ever read. It somehow got mixed up with the box full of category romance we brought back from the book exchange that particular year. I loved it - I must have been about ten and I'd never read anything like it. And I loved that I learned things from it. Geography and history and art and mythology, for a start.
Our wide-eyed but far from silly heroine, Camilla Haven, flees a broken engagement in England to visit Greece. When the book opens, she's writing a letter to a friend saying nothing exciting ever happens to her. Be careful what you wish for! A stranger rushes into the cafe and gives her the keys to a car due in Delphi on a matter of life and death. Camilla seizes the opportunity for adventure and sets out for the unknown. The unknown turns out to be danger and violence, and a meeting with the attractive but enigmatic Englishman Simon Lester. Simon is in Delphi, searching for the truth behind his brother Michael's mysterious death during the Second World War.
I know I'm going on at length, but check out this beautiful passage, describing Camilla's first sight of Delphi, from the road below at sunset:
Ahead of us the mountains thrust that great buttress out into the valley, the river of olive-trees swirling round it as the water swirls round the prow of a ship, to spread out beyond into a great flat lake that filled the plain. High up, in the angle where the bluff joined the mountain, I saw it, Apollo's temple, six columns of apricot stone, glowing against the climbing darkness of the trees behind. Above them soared the sunburned cliffs, below was a tumble, as yet unrecognizable, of what must be monument and treasury and shrine. From where we were, the pillars seemed hardly real; not stone that had ever felt hand or chisel, but insubstantial, the music-built columns of legend; Olympian building, left floating - warm from the god's hand - between sky and earth. Above, the indescribable sky of Hellas; below, the silver tide of the olives everlastingly rippling down to the sea. No house, no man, no beast. As it was in the beginning.
You can see why writers rave about her descriptive powers, can't you? This is so vivid, you feel like you're there.
The second book I read for this review, WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT (1956), follows a much more conventional form. It's basically a country-house murder set on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. I've been to Skye, and take my word for it that Mary Stewart perfectly captures the slightly creepy but breathtakingly beautiful atmosphere of this place, especially in the shadow of the Cuillin Mountains.
Our less wide-eyed heroine Gianetta Brooke goes to Skye to recuperate after a difficult divorce from handsome rotter/writer Nicholas Drury. And what do you know? Nicholas is staying in the same hotel! There's quite a high body count in this one, but the story is compelling and while the romance gets less space, it's effectively done. And Nicholas does a lovely grovel at the end (I don't think I'm spoiling it for you by saying that!).
You can see there's a pattern to these books. Lone woman out of her comfort zone thrown into danger and adventure and forced to sink or swim. Through her courage and initiative (both these girls are pretty stalwart, for all that they look like fragile English roses), she solves the mystery and emerges worthy of true love.
Actually speaking of true love, I really could have done with a bit of kissing in MY BROTHER MICHAEL. What can I say? I'm shallow as a puddle at the Parthenon! True to their era, there's not a lot of naughty stuff in these stories although there's excellent sexual tension.
Both books were excellent reads and featured rather gothic heroes - because the books are in the first person, the heroes' motivations are opaque for most of the stories which increases the tension considerably.
If you're interested in dabbling in old-school romance and you want to sample beautiful writing and exciting tales, I'd highly recommend either of these. Re-reading them after all this time has definitely whetted my appetite to return to Mary Stewart.
Have you read Mary Stewart? Do you think she still holds up today? Do you have a favorite? Are you a romantic suspense fan? Any recommendations?